The Thirty Six Are Hidden

I pulled out this story for my man Jeff, the master blaster, who just returned from Jerusalem. I dispatched him on an adventure: oud picks and mystical books from Lichtenstein’s. He brought me two oud picks, one he can’t find, and a very tasty Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer.

Master of Tales and Tunes

or The Kabbalah of Repair

Oud: eleven or twelve stringed instrument
ancestor to the lute

I turned it over in my mind for months. What was the safest way to carry my oud to Israel? I knew that if I packed it into the hard shell case, the airlines would have the option of checking it through, which they prefer to do. On the other hand, if I carried it by hand I would have to pack it into the soft case, and the soft case has no protection, but when you are carrying the instrument and laying it in the luggage bin above your head, what sort of protection do you need? This is how I figured and that is what I decided to do: carry my beloved oud in my arms, in the soft case, so that there was no chance of the airlines spiriting it away and abandoning it to the handling of the baggage druids, about whom I have heard a hundred cautionary tales from other musicians.

At Kennedy airport, we checked all our luggage and I had my hands free to clutch my instrument to my heart as I stood in the line waiting to board the TWA flight from New York to Tel Aviv. They called for boarding, allowed us to pass into the “people who need assistance boarding and small children” line, and as we were waiting to enter the plane, someone pushed me and my oud was pinned for a split second between myself and the wall of the terminal. It happened so quickly and innocently that I had to recreate the scene later to understand what had come about, but by the time I entered the airplane, I was holding my beautiful oud in my hands like a duck prepared for a Chinese feast, dead in my arms, limp neck, the headstock snapped, its carved rosette popped out of the sound hole and crashing about the bowels of the instrument. As I laid my oud to rest in its compartment over my seat, I felt the folly of all my planning, to have arrived before the trip began with the very eventuality I tried most to avoid. We hadn’t even left the United States and my instrument was broken.

By the time we arrived in Jerusalem, I had decided to pack up the pieces and ship it home to myself, and when I returned six or eight months later, I would take it to my instrument repair man who I was quite sure could fix it. I had no confidence in the ability of Israeli technicians to fix my instrument, so I didn’t bother to inquire. They hadn’t as yet created instruments as fine as mine in the Middle East, how could they repair them? One day, as I went to visit a friend in a quiet neighborhood in Jerusalem, I passed a violin repair person whose shop was just a short block away from my friend’s office. I stopped in out of curiosity and told the man about my instrument. What kind of instrument is it? he asked. I told him it was a big lute. What kind of lute? An oud, I said. Do you play it? he asked. He had heard of my teacher, and he assured me that he could fix my instrument. I brought it to him.

Two weeks later, I picked up my oud from the violin repair man. I was sad to see it, because it looked like it had been broken. It was not fixed the way my repair man would have fixed it at home. At home, I would not have seen the break, the finish would have matched perfectly, the filler undetectable. The finish the Israeli violin repair man applied was glossy while the rest of the oud was rubbed with a dull finish. I saw the separation of woods and some discoloration. He was trained in the former Soviet Union, and I wondered if he had the products available to him that we had in the United States, but I didn’t ask.

When the instrument was broken, I felt all the notes fly out of it like the letters that flew off the tablets when Moses broke them on the way down the mountain. I told this to the violin repair man, who was formal in conversation. He called me Mar Goodman (Mr. Goodman) and I called him Adon, which is a little more formal. He bowed slightly from the waist when I came into his studio. When I told him the story of the notes flying out of the oud, he smiled and said (in Hebrew), there is always that danger. Then he asked me to play for him, so I sat down in the middle of dozens of broken violins, I tuned it (he admonished me to always put pressure on both sides of the headstock equally, a technical as well as a metaphysical critique), and I began to play, slowly, tentatively.

Maybe it was the place, a single large room that opened up to the street through an opaque metal curtain that was drawn across the entire front of the studio. Perhaps it was Jerusalem, and this the first time I heard my instrument played there. Maybe it was the repair, there is a notion in the Kabbalah that a weakness when repaired is stronger than if there had never been a weakness at all. Perhaps it was the proximity to the source of sound, there is a teaching that when the rope that connects us all to the Source is cut and knotted up again, the distance is diminished.

I started to play, he closed his eyes and listened, then he asked me to play louder, turn it up please he said in Hebrew, and I played a little louder. I heard a sound I had never heard before emerge from my instrument. Do you hear? he said. Yes, it’s beautiful, I said, in Hebrew. Thank you, he said, in English. He was smiling an impish smile, as if the secret of the broken oud and its music was something familiar to him, something that we had now shared. He had gathered the notes back into the instrument after fluttering around his studio. His name, by the way, was a Russian name that means heart of the strings. Heart of the strings had returned the notes to my oud. Ahhhhh, he said.

I left heart of the strings, and I walked out into the darkening Jerusalem evening clutching my oud to my chest. It was almost night, the sun making its way home in the west. I walked slowly up Palmach Street, past the Islamic Museum, past the President’s House, that’s where I saw him, just on the other side of the President’s house, before I came to Wingate Square.

He was walking in front of me, it was now dark dark, he took advantage of the deep breath that the city exhales at nightfall and appeared without anyone noticing. But I am sure that I saw him. He walked like an old man but he may have been young, bound up with muscles. He was carrying a notebook with the stories and songs of Jerusalem under his arm, a hat on his head, he walked slowly and methodically ahead of me. In his notebook were not only the stories, but the interpretations, the obvious and the non-obvious, the known stories and the unknown, and the notes that had returned to my instrument in a way I had never imagined them.

james stone goodman
united states of america

Commit: Shabbes Inspiration Pinchas

O Holy Shabbes Inspiration Pinchas

You know we are dreaming peace all the time now
the evidence of that broken vav
in the word shalom of brit shalom [Numbers 25:12]
that may be what’s holding it up

Let’s fix the vav in the brit shalom
the covenant of peace
this reward that is given to you Pinchas

You were rewarded the priesthood
for that unseemly act [Numbers 25:7 ff.]
so what is it — this covenant of peace
the near peace and the far peace [Isaiah 57:19]
with the far peace you have confidence in the future
the near peace is more elusive
but HEY –

The near peace the inward peace
also elusive
the far peace
they’re negotiating a world away
here we are praying
working our gardens and our abs

I have to ask you Pinchas
son of Eleazar son of Aaron
what kind of peace maker might you be
priest-man you ran them through
— that guy and his girlfriend —
killed them both
you love an argument
your reward the priesthood
what about that diminished yud in your name [Numbers 25:11]
something unfinished in you Pinchas
we need you but we need you

Hey Pinchas
that darn vav in shalom seems so broken right now
K’TIA! I holler [K’tia = broken]
remember the perfect vav before its brokenness
the sign of connection
sometimes I feel so hollow and broken too
K’tia! on me
when I feel this way
restore me when I am broken
use your language to integrate
the power of blessing
use your words to make peace out of the pieces
lift up the lower union to join the upper union
that’s vav in its complete form
the connector

It connects in form
up and down the straight line vav
heavens to earth
the vertical link
It connects in context
the horizontal, the holy and
vav ha-chibur
the vav meaning and
Pinchas – fix that vav
restore the brokenness between us
within us
the and
the vertical

Oh priest-man fix it all
if you can’t I will
I’m working on it
me and all my pals
we are whole even when broken
and ready
we’re working it

I’m trying to end this prayer
but I can’t
I’m waiting for new language
something horizontal
[vertical too]
the repair of the near and the repair of the far
suggesting something
entirely new
out of the old might rise
something like –

And And And


*I am no Pinchas
maybe the son of a Pinchas

Gigs: The Oldest Synagogue in the World

Dear Marian showed up to learn and told a story about a synagogue she visited in NYC.
Hey I’ve been there, but lately only from the third floor. I wrote a story about it.
It turned out to be a different place.

Gig Tonight

Linda showed up at the end of the gig and asked if I wanted to go on an adventure.

Where to?

The oldest synagogue in New York City, someone bought it and turned it into a foundation and an artist’s studio. [she exaggerates but who cares]

Sounds great.

It’s way downtown, way down on the lower East Side, she said, below the letters [Avenues A,B, C]. We took cabs. Jake the bass player came too, and Judah from Brooklyn, and Daniel the artist.

We found the street, carrying all our instruments, in the middle of the block, dark, set back behind a black metal gate. It certainly looks like a synagogue but it reads The Orensanz Foundation. What the heck is Orensanz. . . I mumbled.

The name of the two brothers who bought it, Linda said.

Standing out in front of its dark exterior on Norfolk street, waiting for someone to answer the buzzer, I was as cold as I have ever been in my entire life. No gloves, I hate it when my hands get cold. I felt as if I were standing naked on an ice flow. It was February, New York City, but it felt like February, Rejkavik. The temperature had plummeted forty degrees from afternoon to night that particular day, and my bones froze standing out in front of the Orensanz Foundation, midnight, after the gig on Fourteenth Street. We stood waiting on the street, in the dark, for someone to come from somewhere within the labyrinth of the dark edifice looming above us. Open the door.

There were handwritten notes attached to the gate: ring loud, I am within, but deep within. Ring ring, no response, climbing he was through a series of ascending palaces of subterranean mist to reach land-level.

Ring ring. A light from within, a door opened and silhouetted in the doorway a man with a natty thin-brim hat. Cardigan sweater. Scarf.

He opened the front door, come into my office, he said. His office was to the right as we entered. I peeped to the left into the large empty room, the synagogue I guessed, it was dark but I could see a shadowy presence and its three story ascent in the darkness. On top a luminescent dome that glowed blue in the dark.

His accent was a combination of Latino, eastern European, Pee Wee’s Funhouse, I thought it was completely contrived and someone’s private joke. It sounded like one of my accents. In his office, large industrial space heaters hanging from the ceiling. Pictures on the walls of Sarah Jessica Somebody’s wedding, who Mr. Orensanz referred to several times as one of his finest moments as landlord. I gathered he rented the space out to parties for New York’s hip elite. Poof Daddy was here last night. Poof Daddy was here last night, he said twice, great party. MTV loves it here.

Joke? I looked at Linda. No joke, Linda looked back at me. Joke? I looked at Judah. I have no idea, Judah looked back at me, shrugging his shoulders. Joke? I looked at Jake the bass player. Good joke, Jake looked back at me, great joke, fabulous joke.

Orensanz was describing his brother’s sculpture, for which the synagogue was purchased in order to house his studio. Where is your brother now?

Paris. He went back to naming the celebrities who were having parties in his synagogue.

I snuck out of the office and into the dark synagogue to the left. The floors were wood and not refinished, as were the columns that ran the length of the room in two parallel rows. The columns were carved out of small facets in shapes that looked like fine tile-work, but it was not tile, it was wood, small carved facets of color carved out of the wood pillars. I realized that the entire ceiling and upper walls were formed out of these colorful miniaturized facets. The colors – magenta, scarlet, purple, yellow, and the dome a shimmering blue like God’s holy eyes.

There was no heat at all in the synagogue space. I unpacked my guitar and sat down on the steps that led up to the bimah. I began to play. First I played a couple of serpentine Ladino melodies, I switched to some oud-inspired improvisations, the notes of my instrument ascending slowly up into the dome space and raising a holy sweet savor to God’s nose, ears, eyes. For the second time that night, I began the love songs that make up the slow-hand Havdalah ceremony that I had recently learned for just these occasions, and by now the group who had been huddling in the office had followed the sound and wandered into the synagogue.

Mr. Orensanz the brother switched on a bank of what looked like make-up lights that ran in a row above the columns along two side walls and the rear wall of the synagogue. Not too much light, but enough to note the floors, the walls, the columns, the facets were original and not reconditioned, original structures, the empty floor a rough parquet unfinished, whose footprints?

Daniel the artist was examining the columns and the collusion of colors in the facets around the room. Everyone was walking slowly examining the shadowy recesses. Jake the bass player unpacked his instrument, sat down next to me, and began to accompany my playing.

I started to sing in Ladino again, a medieval Spanish garnished with Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Arabic. I sang love songs, sad songs of longing, songs of exile, and I noticed that Mr. Orensanz was standing near one of the columns to my right, weeping at the sound of his ancestral language and the music of the post-exilic longing of his predecessors.

Soon everyone stopped wandering around the room and stood stationary, each in place, like players on a big game board, lit not-lit by the light casting shadows, faces dark.

I sang and they listened this way for forty five minutes. No longer did I notice the temperature, it was cold but we raised a fire in our rooted souls, the sound rose through the dome and into the space where the music rested. We sang and played into the shadows for forty five minutes.

When we finished, we quietly filed out into the New York City night, a hush having fallen over all of us, including Mr. Orensanz, who asked if I would like to record in his synagogue. Poof Daddy.

On the street, I began to freeze up again. I had no idea where we were, but several blocks later we came to the celebrated Katz’s delicatessen. We took a ticket and went and sat in the cavernous dining room, next to a table of young musicians recently come in no doubt from their own show, in black leather, studs, chains, tattoos and piercings.

One of them glanced at me carrying my instruments. Gig tonight? he asked.

Yeah, I said, great gig. You?

Me too, he said, nodding his head up and down. We smiled at each other. Later, I watched him walk out the front door and disappear into the night like a raven.

James Stone Goodman
United States of America

The Inevitable Return of Nests

Someone asked me to post the eulogy I spoke for Le’ad.
I don’t feel right doing that just now
but need to put some other work
here inspired by him.


God of Nests

To Le’ad 1988-2007

O God of the inevitable return of nests
Resting places on the ground
Drawings on rocks
Twigs stacked in a field

The forest fronting a nest
Arms holding the upper worlds
A circle of limbs

Holy God of stacked rocks
O God Smacked up against place
Stones marking release
Sticks returning

jsg, usa
April 27, 2007

and this

What to do with our hands
When our souls are in motion
The candle of multiple wicks
Bound up together

The souls over the divide
When we die
God like a river flowing

How to track the heroic stories
Water through a rock

What to do when
The nests return to the trees
Where to meet the fragile God of nests

April 27, 2007

Commit: Came to Curse — Come to Bless

O holy Shabbes Inspiration Balak
in which Balak King of Moab brings the prophet Bilaam
from the north to curse and he blesses

I think he was a real prophet [Sifre on Deut. 357]
though I don’t think he spoke God
that is — he didn’t bless
he didn’t curse
he didn’t have the power of either [Meam Loez]
words do not curse
there is no such power
we will defeat ourselves
if left alone

Nor did he have the power to bless
because we were already blessed [Meam Loez]

Something missing in his vision don’t you know
he was blind in one eye [Numbers 24:3 and Sanh. 15a]
he was missing the eye that sees his own smallness
with his good eye he saw the greatness of God
he was that kind of prophet [Hacohen al HaTorah, v.4, p.115]

The text doesn’t say outright
that the donkey made human sounds
surely the presence of God communicated to Bilaam
through the donkey
as if the animal had spoken
or maybe it was all a vision [Guide II:42]

The mouth on that donkey
another of the ten miracles
created in the in-between time [Avot 5:9]
not the six days not the Sabbath either
between the suns the between-time
part day knowledge part night knowledge
built into Creation at the mystery time
miracles to appear when necessary
like stem cells
like transplants
like the cures we are waiting for
like the peace we are praying for
when we howl WHEN
we want a hurry-up
something wonderful we are waiting for
created but not-present
like the mouth of Bilaam’s donkey speaking
when it came time for the animal to speak
it spoke

I don’t think he was a magician or a sorceror either
though Joshua did [Joshua 13:22]
not magic we are yearning for
we are waiting for science
we are yearning for discovery
my daughter told this to the guys in the legislature
but they do not think that far
they do not see the future
and they have false certainty about the past
when it’s time when it’s time
they will never get that
it’s always God’s time don’t they know
aha – God says – here it comes
we built it in at the beginning
it was created so to speak to appear in its time
and you will not interfere with that
I have made miracles already

Bilaam was like Job
a prophet among the nations [Tanna debei Eliahu 28]
the world can never accuse us
of monopolizing prophecy
would that they were all prophets
there are so few of them nowadays
within and without the camp

In the hospital the old rebbe said
is that we are doing?
just giving language to what we know?
take the just out of that sentence, I said.
we are giving language
to what we know
a vocabulary

I really loved the tents of those people
said Bilaam in his most famous passage
we quote him first thing in the prayers
you know how the tents were [Baba Batra 87a]
not one tent opening looking into any other tent opening
community and individuality
we worked it out as a people

As a person —
ma tovu oholekha Yaakov
how good are your tents O Jacob
the singular
respect the individual
mishkenotekha the places where you dwell O Israel
— the peoplehood the community
we worked out the confluence of the two

That’s what Bilaam saw and that’s what he blessed
here is your blessing, Bilaam said
now you have words for it
first, you are already blessed

Secondly, you are bound to each other
none of your tents open onto one another
you are never alone when you are alone

I can’t see into your tent
but I know you’re there


Nurturing the Oud Obsession: First Lesson

Precious Velvel sent me a note notifying me of a concert to take place next Spring in Wisconsin. Velvel’s daughter is a cellist currently studying with an Israeli master of the cello at the University of Wisconsin. The cello master will be performing with a great master of the oud in Madison next Spring, Velvel informed me.

The oud master is my teacher. He is the one I went to study with. Here is the story of our first meeting, one of many I have written about the beloved oud.

I hope you enjoy it.


First Lesson
Nurturing the Oud Obsession

Oud: eleven or twelve strings, a middle eastern lute,
without frets

The oud had erupted as an obsession in me. I first heard the sound of the oud in Israel. On my return to the United States, my wife’s aunt often danced to its music. She knew the oud players around New York, and several times at family parties, someone would hire an oud player and Clarissa would dance.

I loved the dancing, the sinewy, snake-like movements of the oriental dance, I especially loved it without the distraction of the cheap costumes in which the movements are usually clothed. But the pure movement, the rhythm of the movement, the swirl of the body like the flow of the letters of the script in which the oud music was sung — it was purely the movement that attracted me to the dance, not the clothes, not even the flesh. It was the body moving like the swirl of Arabic calligraphy.

I loved the intimate sound of the instrument: the sound of flesh and string, the pure acoustic sound. Oud means wood in Arabic and that’s what I heard in the playing of the oud, the liberation of the music lurking in the wood coaxed out by finger, nail, flesh.

I tried to find an instrument in the United States. On a visit to a small town just east of Los Angeles, I met Charles Chase, wonderful poet-proprietor of the Folk Music Center in Claremont, California who also had an appreciation for the music and the culture of the oud. He had been warehousing the finest guitar woods for decades – Brazilian rosewood, curly maples – and he found various artisans to make instruments for him. He commissioned a small group of ouds from an Armenian oud maker with great skills, Viken Najarian [see]. The problem with the middle eastern oud is always the wood. Wood is a premium in the middle east, and the instrument makers are not accustomed to the finer woods that the western luthiers use.

The combination of good western guitar woods and the eastern oud sensate form produced ten magnificent brazilian rosewood and maple instruments. I bought one of them, but I didn’t know how to play it.

I approached the oud as I did the classical guitar: I played it with my fingers, no plectrum, like the guitar I prefer the feel of my fingers directly on the strings. I knew I owned an extraordinary instrument, but my style was idiosyncratic and I never learned enough to play the instrument in concert.

I heard that one of the great oud players was coming to my town on a cultural exchange tour of the United States. I took my instrument, arrived early enough to secure a front row seat, and sat there waiting for the concert to begin with my oud across my lap. I knew that even the sight of my instrument from the stage would be my ticket of introduction to the oud master.

I sat quietly through the concert with my oud on my lap. It was a magnificent concert. The oud player noticed my instrument. What’s that guy doing sitting there with an oud on his lap? After the concert he motioned me to approach the stage. He looked at my instrument and invited me backstage where we could talk privately.

He asked about my instrument. I told him the story of its origin. He asked me to play for him, which I did in my completely unconventional style. That’s interesting, he said, but of course all wrong.

Teach me, I said, knowing in my bones in my blood that this may be the one opportunity in my life to receive professional instruction on my instrument.

He laughed and informed me that he no longer took private students (he was much too busy), and besides, he lived in Israel.

I’ll come, I said. I meant it. He laughed more, but he saw my seriousness and relented.

Come to Israel and I will teach you. But you have to bring your instrument.

I took a sabbatical three months later and went to Israel to sit at his feet and learn the playing of my instrument from the source.

I arrived at Ben Gurion airport with a broken oud and a broken heart. I found someone to repair it, a Russian violin maker called heart of the strings [see the story called The Kabbalah of Repair at under Words].

After heart of the strings repaired my oud, I reached my teacher on the telephone. He lived quite far away, by Israeli standards, from Jerusalem.

His town was a large Arab town northeast of Haifa. That means that in driving to him, I drove through the three largest cities in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.

Israel is a small country, and such a trip is only about 110 miles long. But getting through the cities is difficult, and I had no idea how long it would take me to make the journey.

I took directions from my teacher over the phone. It wasn’t until I hung up and reviewed what I had written that I realized that in all his directions, through the three largest cities in Israel, through the several different geographic zones that in Israel are so close upon one another, in all the complexity of his directions that required three free hours of driving and navigating, in all those directions there was not one street name. It was all right at the bridge. . . left at the garbage dump. . .two o’clock at the rotary. . . etc. Not one street name.

The town is named Shfaram. There are no Jews there today, it is one of the largest Arab towns in Israel. Today there are Christian Arabs, Moslem Arabs, and Druze living in Shfaram. In Shfaram is an ancient synagogue and I was told by an old Arab man on top of a nearby mountain that there were Jews living there as recently as the early Seventies, but none since. At one time, not long after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) met there.

I started off on my first journey to Shfaram on Sunday, which is called in Hebrew yom rishon [day one] and is so named from the account of Creation. Six days of creation followed by Shabbat, day one, day two, day three, etc. The Muslims identify their days the same way. Sunday is a full day of activity in Israel, there is no such thing in Israel as a weekend, there is just six days of work one day of rest, just like in the Bible.

So on day one, I was hurtling through the Israeli countryside on my way to Tel Aviv and the up the coast to Haifa. When you leave Jerusalem you descend. Jerusalem is relatively high, and you move from the heights of the Judean hills around Jerusalem through the corridor (called the prozdor) that has connected Jerusalem to the Sea for millennia, driving down through the forested landscape to the coastal plain that leads to Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean.

Tel Aviv is a large, smelly city, very fast and busy. There are always many distractions in Tel Aviv, but I didn’t stop.

I hurtled through Tel Aviv and found my way onto the coastal highway that runs next to the Mediterranean all the way up to Haifa. About half way up the coast toward Haifa, the road relaxed from the tension of Tel Aviv, curved even closer to the Mediterranean, and for the first time I saw the Sea. I could smell it in the air.

This is the new road, that is how it is known to Israelis. On maps it is designated by a number — two — but Israelis know it only as the new road. The old road which is marked on the maps by the number four, it is parallel to the new road a little inland and often you can see one road from the other. The new road is under constant renovation, especially around Tel Aviv, and it would take a few more trips until I realized that the old road is much faster especially when there is traffic.

I came to Haifa. Both the new and the old roads lead to Haifa. I would later discover a road that leads to the north and avoids Haifa altogether, winding around the gentle sweep of Mt. Carmel. Haifa is the port city of Israel. It is built mostly on hills that roll down to the natural port on which Haifa is built. There are beautiful places to go in Haifa, but I didn’t stop.

I passed through the port of Haifa, hugging the Mediterranean but now I could see the ships docked in Haifa, from Holland, Africa, Kuala Lampur, a dozen exotic addresses. Haifa is also busy, dirty, and smelly when near the Sea. It took me almost an hour to crawl through the center of the city.

Once through Haifa, I headed toward the western Galilee. Just north of Haifa, the scenery once again changed dramatically. In the distance I saw small villages nestled into the sides and on top of the hills. It was green and beautiful, open, unpopulated compared to the Tel Aviv – Haifa corridor I had just passed through, the air was clean, cool, fresh. I followed the signs to Shfaram where my teacher lived.

I had never been to an Arab town before. My teacher’s directions were precise but none of the turns were marked with the names that he gave them. I had found my way by intuition and a pretty good road map tucked into my sun visor. I found the town easily, with not one wrong turn, and it was only when I entered the town itself did I get lost. I would later find out that there are two entrances to the town. I had taken the wrong one.

We had scheduled to meet each other at the gas station. There were several gas stations in the town and I had found the wrong one. I drove out in search of the other. I got hopelessly lost in the dirt roads of the town. Soon I was driving among shepherds with herds of sheep and goats, nothing was paved, the roads were barely wide enough for a single car to pass. Everyone stared at me as I passed. I was an hour late and looking for a phone to call him. I finally found a phone and just at the moment when I was about to exit my car to use it, I saw him in his car at the very same moment he saw me. I don’t know which of us was more surprised. He had given up on me and was on his way home. We exchanged stories, and I followed him to his house.

He lived on the edge of the town (the other edge), overlooking a meadow below and the Galilee spread out in the distant east. It was a beautiful view. All the windows were open and the air rustled our papers on the music stand. His wife served me cola and some fresh figs and other fruit. I assumed that she spoke no English so I spoke to her in halting child’s English. Later I learned that she taught English in a school in Acco.

We went right to work. He began by showing me the basics: how to hold the instrument, how to manipulate the plectrum, called a reeshi which means eagle feather in Arabic because that was the traditional way to pluck strings. We discussed the intricacies of extracting sound out of the instrument. We talked mostly in metaphor and he intuitively illustrated his points sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in Arabic (he was delighted that I read and wrote Arabic), sometimes in English. He showed me the traditional modes, called makamat, of the music.

It was very difficult, a complete re-education for me from the way I had taught myself. It required a tremendous amount of concentration just to play through all the examples he was showing me. Learning to use the reeshi, the plectrum, was difficult because I was accustomed to playing oud with my fingers as I played guitar. We were head to head for about two hours. He gave me a reeshi that he no longer used, made of bone.

The reeshi was especially difficult for me to use. I worked it too hard over the strings. He lifted my hand and taught me an exercise, my hand floating up and down as if lifted by a pillow of air. I practiced the exercise while driving, sitting in a chair, watching television, walking down the street, gently lifting my hand up and down isolating the motion of the hand at the wrist. Do this everyday, he said.

He heard something in my playing that I myself would not hear for months. When I began studying with him, I said to myself, I’ve taken on too much here. I can’t possibly do this. He listened to me and said, we will accomplish much in the months we have together. After every lesson, he congratulated me. I felt foolish — I could not even hear the notes at first.

He told me to close my eyes and listen, to hear the notes first and then to find them on the fingerboard. I couldn’t find them in the beginning. They are microtones, notes that we do not ordinarily have in Western music, notes that are closer together than each adjacent key on the piano or each fret on the guitar. I couldn’t hear them because I had never played them before, you cannot reach these notes on the guitar (unless you bend the strings), nor can you play them on the piano. They are not commonly a part of Western music at all.

Listen, he said and I closed my eyes and heard the note in my head. Then I found it on the fingerboard. It was more mental than physical. I could only find the note when I paused to listen for it. I sat there in his living room overlooking the western Galilee with my eyes closed, trying to imagine in my mind the note I was trying to find on the neck of my instrument. Then I plucked the note. The more I listened the more I began to find the notes.

The real work of playing an instrument at this level, I realized, is internal. You have to listen, he said, then you play. One time I sat in a master class with a great Spanish classical guitarist. Someone in the audience asked him which finger exercises he used to warm up for a concert. None, he said, is not physical. Is entirely mental.

Like matter and energy, the relation of which is fixed deep within the structure of things but not perceived, the relation of mental and physical, inner and outer, clarified for me on the fretless fingerboard of my beloved oud.

I realized that in all our time together, we exchanged not one sentence of personal information about each other. It would be this way the entire time he taught me: I would show up, we would play for two or three hours, discussing only music. He knew nothing about me, I knew little about him. We spoke only music to each other and it was through the music that we were bound up together, soul to soul.

He gave me my assignments for next time. Do you have time to practice? he asked. Yes, I said, every day. He seemed genuinely delighted with me as a student. He saw that I learned quickly, and he knew how eager I was. We will accomplish a lot, he said again and I began to believe him. He gave me more directions, and I headed back to Jerusalem just as the sun began to find its way home in the west.

I was back on the road toward Haifa, as the darkness settled over the north, I watched the villages on top of the hills in the distance light up. It was quiet and peaceful in my car, the traffic had diminished, and soon I was smelling the Sea again and heading for Tel Aviv. I didn’t stop on the way home. I gobbled up a couple of sandwiches I had brought with me in the car, and I was home in Jerusalem just over two hours later.

I was not at all tired, as a matter of fact, I practiced for two more hours that night. By the next day, I had begun to read the pieces he had given me. I realized that through the music we had entered a place deeper than our differences, before the separation of Isaac and Ishmael, the music of Abraham. The oud had opened my mouth, and it was singing the world.

This is the story of one of the best days of my life.

james stone goodman
united states of america

In Jail

We have a program through the synagogue called Shalvah. Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew. It’s a support group for people whose lives have been altered by alcoholism and/or drug addiction. We meet weekly. It’s an inspirational meeting, that’s the right word, inspirational. It’s what we need to overcome our complacency: inspiration. Just that, to hear or see or learn something that moves us off our seat, out of our skin a little bit, something that strikes deep deep. Inspiration — a dip into the well of blessing.

At our most recent meeting, I read the following story. It had appeared in our town’s newspaper several years ago. It inspired a wonderful meeting, both from people who had been in jail, whose lives had been altered in an unexpected way by the prison experience, from those whose children were in jail, from those who have never been in jail but who know what it means to carry jail around with them. Jail, freedom, prison, recovery — it’s an inside job.

In Jail

I went to the jail to visit someone. A former drug user, recalled to jail for a warrant from another state. In jail, you wait and you wait and you wait. Even when you are visiting, you wait. The people who work at the jail, I noticed, move very slowly. What’s the hurry? It’s jail.

The rooms are unpleasant, even for guests. Everything is dirty, half the light fixtures are out and unreplaced. The chairs are all loose at the joints. They have all kinds of stuff stuck to them. Every surface has a filmy coating. It’s jail.

As I moved through the labyrinth of the jail to make my supervised visit, I glanced through the window of one of the doors and I saw the lock-up. There was a man in an orange suit standing in it. It was the same orange that the Buddhist monks of southeast Asia wear.

As I looked into the cell, I felt myself gulp a breath. How could you breathe in there, I thought, caged up that way?

I waited in a room with a half a dozen partitions, heavy glass, and phones like you see in the movies. I waited another twenty minutes. The person I was visiting came and sat down at the other side of the thick glass. He picked up the phone. He was also wearing an orange Buddhist monk costume.

I hope you’re not here to help me like every other hypocrite #%&*$* I’ve met, he said by way of introduction.

I didn’t know what he meant. The hypocrites I have known have never tried to help anyone. We started to talk about the difference between ceasing to drug or drink and sobriety. I told him I believed that addiction is not about substances, it’s about personalities that become attached to substances. It’s about the emptiness within, it’s about the space into which we drink, it’s about the emptiness into which we stuff drugs.

When we stop drinking, when we stop taking drugs, then we encounter the problem staring back at us in the mirror that we are now free to repair. It’s about the personality that became attached to drugs and alcohol. That’s the big difference between not taking drugs and being sober. Sobriety you have to work for, it’s hard work, because it’s about the personality that became attached to the substance.

It’s about attachment. We talked about attachment and the freedom of the personality liberated from such attachments, the freedom to work ourselves well, and sure enough, we began to sound like two Buddhists although only one of us was dressed appropriately. There in jail we began to hover over the thick glass which separated us. Somewhere above the dirt we met and spoke the truth clearly and unjudgmentally to each other. I liked him, he liked me, but he’s in there and I’m out here.

What’s it like to be in there? I asked.

He began to tell me. Not so bad. . .really, you get used to it. You carry your jail around with you, right?

That’s what we had been talking about all along, some of us are out here but we carry our prison with us wherever we go, and likewise our freedom, because it’s an inside job, jail, freedom, like sobriety, the work is inner. It’s an inside job — sobriety, freedom, prison — we get what we work, we are our struggles. We are the freedom we seek. Or we are not.


From the third floor: commit

Hello. I am starting this blog. I like the way it looks and that I owe to my man Jeff Hirsch, who has also done all my CDs as well as my web site. He does so much for me. He makes my product look great because he gets what I am doing. He took that picture above of me playing my beloved oud. On my front porch. I hardly have to leave the house.

Everything I post will be at least three generations old, which is nothing for me. I rewrite constantly. I have a rule never to post or send anything without letting it sit a while. I have certain interests [obsessions] that I write about, feel free to respond. I think you have to register to do that. This is new to me, thanks.

Now the first piece I will share. It comes from a commitment I’ve taken on, to write a long piece every week based on the Torah of that time. I am about five weeks into the commitment as I write this, and so far the pieces have been successful. What it means to be successful, etc., I have thought about so I’ve written about that too. That piece is called Night Vision.

I bring these pieces out on Friday night in some form or other. I revisit them in our learning on Saturday morning for discussion of sources and such, then I rewrite them again that afternoon. I discern the sources, by the way, after I have written the pieces. Always.

I have learned from playing music about making the commit. I have also learned from Exodus 24:3 and following: the tell — write — read [re-read] sequence. I try to create an oral environment on Friday night. And with music, you make the commit as intention, you give yourself to it the hands follow. Here’s the piece about the commit [first a Prelude]:

Six weeks into the commit
I am sharing with you my offerings
this one different not the piece itself written for the week
but another piece that came out of the piece written for the week
one act of creativity engages another and this is the other
it arose yesterday after studying and learning
and feeling myself being inhaled into the text itself
becoming a letter a vowel a dot on the page
here is the piece
it’s called Night Vision
or it’s the night vision itself

Night Vision

We are six weeks into the commit
the commitment to offer up something good
every Shabbat from our holy guidebook

The necessity to make the commit
whether it be music or life of some other kind
the willingness to fail at it maybe more than to succeed
to fail and to fail and to fail and then to SUCCEED
both failure and success understood by its internal standard
which is demanding in an excellence way not an approval way

Not even an entertaining way only excellence
something good is what I said and I meant it
to call it what it is so that the success or failure with the commit
rises before me
also the success of failure
not a matter of subjectivity but what is known through a standard
familiar to the artist or the life-lived-thoroughly person
you know the one I mean the one attached to the tree of life

As we were discussing the mystery rule of Torah
the mystery mitzvah as it were if it were understood
we might understand

And the question became how do we understand
the un-understood or maybe we should call it the
we came to rest in a place none of us imagined before
we opened a sense of redemption through learning
through guidebook Torah I suppose in a way suggested by
the Sefas Emes* that applied to us more
than to the text itself

At that moment we had become a letter of the guidebook
a dot a vowel even a period a mark on the page
we became a letter of the text and it released us
from literal
the commentators we had come to understand
had not been so released
they were searching for symmetry
we arrived at a-symmetry

They explained in a perpendicular way why Moses deserved
or did not deserve to die the way he did
gazing into the Land from the distance
thinking it should have been me

Instead he died we are taught — there —
not a place, not a location but a how
how he died – he died as Miriam died in the guidebook
by the kiss of God
God sucked up their souls so to speak Moses and Miriam both
with a kiss

In God’s world they died a sensual death
they got inhaled into God’s breath through the Divine kiss
n’shikat Hashem
from God’s perspective they were taken to the heart like
a sweetheart

What can we make now of the frustrations of their lives
or our lives for that matter?
How frustrating at the end to have been
loved into death this way

What’s not integrated, what’s left undone in the story now
from God’s perspective
how could they have passed with more intimacy and gentleness
than with this holy kiss
through which they became one being with God

With the death of Miriam following on the heels
of the mystery rule of the guidebook
the mystery paradox of the ritual of purification
the very preparation of which defiles
how does the defiling action
this followed by the death of Miriam
gone the well that followed us through forty years
of Wilderness wandering
with the death of Miriam
as she was inhaled into the mouth of God
do we mourn the absence of sustenance
the water that followed us the well that accompanied us
the Wilderness the Wilderness

We are moving over the threshold
without our sustenance
with the a-symmetry of the various stories that settled this week
not into harmony they are not logical these stories
they are not entirely mysteries either
they are a-symmetrical stories they do not converge
they perch a-symmetrical
we will not figure them
they will not unlock the secrets of the guidebook

They are the category of recoverable wisdom
gone for a moment
undeciphered for now
but understood known in night vision
at night you understand them you really do
at night you know what it is
not to penetrate this secret
it will not unravel
it is not entirely mysterious either

We are always waiting
for that recoverable wisdom
the elders all of them
they may return to us someday
with their recoverable wisdom
carrying it this their function
to carry that sacred load through our lives
so we remember them
the bearers of our recoverable wisdom

Sustaining like Miriam’s well of water
Like the water
Like Miriam herself.

shabbes chukkat

* the Sefas Emes, named after his book of commentary [Language of Truth], Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter the rebbe of Ger (near Warsaw), 1847 – 1905.

Commit: Shabbes Inspiration Korach 2

Here is my first share of a weekly piece
[thanks to dear Denisee for a
good edit]

O holy Shabbes Inspiration Korach [2]

Korach’s challenge
you have taken too much upon yourselves
the entire congregation is holy [Numbers 16:3]
We will see, said Moshe rabbeinu [16:5]
the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them all
Korach and all of them [16:31]
his challenge was personal
not principled. [Avot 5:17 ]

Once I was traveling in the Sinai
I put my ear to the earth and I heard
Moses and his Torah are true
we are liars. [Baba Batra 74a]

The mouth of the earth that opened
is one of ten miracles created bein hashemashot
between the suns at twilight
the end of Creation
outside of time so to speak
built into creation
at the end of the first day
before the Shabbes
between time
created then for the world to catch up to
as it were
like the mouth of the prophetic donkey
like Miriam’s well
the rainbow the manna the staff of Aaron
the shamir the writing and the pen and the tablets
some say the evil spirits
and the grave of Moses and the ram of Abraham
some also say the tongs
made from the tongs [Avot 5:9]

like transplantation
like science
like stem cells
like the saving of lives
in ways we cannot quite imagine
because the world is spinning fast fast
and what we know will in some dimly discerned future
outspin the world
then we will know
what we could not know
at the right time
the right time —

It is the hidden moon of Tammuz tonight
that hides the future this way
all the hidden possibilities that could save one of us
or all of us
some day.

O Hidden moon of Tammuz
O Master of Mirrors
let me see with the unclear mirror the dark images
let me see the moon there in the darkness
the images that are only discerned at night
by moonlight

God of the light and the dark
release me from distractions
bind me with invisible fibers to the deep story
the dark story the hidden story
the right words not the simple words
not the easy ones not even the sweet words
I want the true ones

Don’t sweet talk me
draw me into the deep
carry me not in your pocket
but sling me like a satchel
over your shoulder
let the truth plump like the moon
the dark moon the dark candle
the candle at the hearth with all its shadows

It’s the moon it’s the moon the dark candle
the reflected dark dark dark

Shabbes Korach

New Blog

My fan base, now approaching 4 to 5 outstanding individuals in as many states, has suggested I start a blog.

Hey Goodman, your stuff is good. Start a blog, but include no jive.

So here’s my blog. No jive, check it out.

I’ll do my best to include only thoughtful product.
I publish nothing that does not percolate/fricassee*/stew/cure/ rest

for a few days.

Let me know what you think, jsg

• French fricassée, from Old French, from feminine past participle of fricasser, to fricassee : probably frire, to fry (from Latin frgere, to roast, fry) + casser, to break, crack (from Latin quassre, to shake, shatter; see squash2) or Vulgar Latin *coctire, to press together (from Latin coctus; see cogent).